Castle Rock this week became the second metro area municipality in as many months to pass a measure severely limiting the amount of water-intensive “cool-season turf” that can be rolled out with new homes in the Douglas County town. The new ordinance, passed Tuesday in a unanimous vote of the Castle Rock town council, bans turf in the front yards of new homes and limits it to no more than 500 square feet in the backyard. It also does away with turf in non-functional areas — spaces not meant for recreation — around commercial properties and multi-family developments. The new measure applies to any new home construction permitted after Jan. 1, 2023…
“Water’s on everyone’s mind and how we can conserve it,” Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray said. “We’re going to get more and more people moving in and we’re going to have to accommodate these people.”
In fact, Castle Rock has plans to grow to around 125,000 people from 81,000 today over the next couple of decades. Nearly half of the water the town uses is for outdoor irrigation and water officials estimate Castle Rock could achieve a reduction of 52% in future outdoor water use if less thirsty turf — like fescue or Kentucky bluegrass — is planted and more drought-tolerant native vegetation is grown, a practice known as xeriscaping. The town has a goal of cutting per capita water usage from 118.4 gallons a day to 100 gallons daily by 2050.
Two firms — one a Colorado-based hemp bioplastics company and the other a vertical-farming equipment manufacturer from the United Kingdom — were unanimously approved Thursday by the Colorado Economic Development Commission for state incentive packages aimed at enticing them to expand into Northern Colorado.
Project Dunia, an otherwise unnamed company described in commission documents as a “Colorado-based manufacturing company that produces hemp-based bioplastics that are designed for injection molding applications and are compostable,” is eyeing Weld County for a $20 million manufacturing facility.
It is the commission’s practice not to identify companies that the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade is recruiting until incentives are accepted.
Next door in Larimer County, U.K.-based Intelligent Growth Solutions, a company that makes equipment for indoor farming operations, won approval for $2,758,845 in tax credits over eight years to build a North American base of operations that will serve customers in the United States and Canada.
An unprecedented amount of people are moving to Durango and La Plata County, but with the increasing effects of drought across the region, is there enough water to support them all? For years, population growth and new development were already on the rise in Southwest Colorado, but the effects of the pandemic accelerated that buildup as more people left urban areas and sought out desirable mountain towns…
In just the past few weeks, a number of large-scale development projects have been proposed: 800 units south of town on the Isgar property near La Posta Road; another 500 apartments in Three Springs; and nearly 80 apartments and townhomes near the old Mercury Building. And that’s not to mention the onslaught of scattered development around town and in the county. All this raises a fair question: does the region, which has experienced a 23-year drought believed to be the worst since 800 AD, have enough water to sustain it all?
“Climate change is the big unknown,” Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwest Water Conservation District, said. “We’ve already seen our overall available water supplies decline.”
One thing that’s for sure, the Durango migration can’t be turned off like a faucet.
“You can’t stop people from moving here; that’s not an option,” Kevin Reidy, Colorado Water Conservation Board’s water conservation specialist, said. “So we have to figure out the most water-efficient way to build new communities and start thinking about what rabbits we can pull out of a hat to make this work better.”
This year La Niña returns for the third consecutive winter, driving warmer-than-average temperatures for the Southwest and along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard, according to NOAA’s U.S. Winter Outlook released today by the Climate Prediction Center—a division of the National Weather Service. Starting in December 2022 through February 2023, NOAA predicts drier-than-average conditions across the South with wetter-than-average conditions for areas of the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
“Drought conditions are now present across approximately 59% of the country, but parts of the Western U.S and southern Great Plains will continue to be the hardest hit this winter,” said Jon Gottschalck, chief, Operational Prediction Branch, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “With the La Niña climate pattern still in place, drought conditions may also expand to the Gulf Coast.”
– The greatest chance for warmer-than-average conditions are in western Alaska, and the Central Great Basin and Southwest extending through the Southern Plains.
– Warmer-than-average temperatures are also favored in the Southeastern U.S. and along the Atlantic coast.
– Below-normal temperatures are favored from the Pacific Northwest eastward to the western Great Lakes and the Alaska Panhandle.
Despite past thinking that drought is a slow process taking multiple seasons or years to fully develop, fast-evolving drying events are becoming increasingly common, according to new research led by CIRES’ North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (NS CASC) and Earth Lab. The team, led by CIRES’ Virginia Iglesias, evaluated drought intensification rates for the contiguous United States. They found that, while typical drought (the statistical median drought) onset rates did not change significantly from 1951 – 2021, intensification rates of the faster-onset droughts have accelerated, especially in the last decade (2011 – 2021). In fact, their onset rates were the fastest in the last 70 years.
What drives these faster developing droughts? Changes in temperature and precipitation are key, but when coupled with atmosphere-ocean interactions, like El Niño in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, that can also drive soil moisture changes. While El Niño operates on the sub-decadal scale (every 3 – 5 years), other atmosphere-ocean interactions like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, in the northern Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, in the North Atlantic Ocean, can explain over half of the variance (how the data points vary from the average) in multidecadal drought frequency. In other words, what’s happening in the ocean can modulate the speed of continental drought development.
The results presented in this new research also suggest that warmer droughts, which tend to be worse, also set in faster. So while the development of droughts has sped up in the last few decades – and now set in even faster – the Earth’s warmer future almost certainly means more quick-onset droughts, events that can catch farmers, water managers and others off-guard. Iglesias and coauthor, CIRES’ WIlliam Travis said, “Faster droughts are not necessarily more intense events, but with a warmer atmosphere drying out the soil more quickly, future droughts are likely to set-in faster and become more intense.” Coupled with the difficulty of forecasting droughts, rapid onset of drought events will pose a bigger challenge to forecasters and resource managers as the climate warms.
This story was modified from an NS CASC research highlight. Continue reading here.
Click the link to read the article on Nevada’s only statewide nonprofit newsroom the Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg):
In between the towns of Pioche and Caliente, pumps draw water from underground aquifers to irrigate crops. The water is heavy, and running those pumps depends on electricity — a lot of it.
For years, these Lincoln County farms received all of their energy from power generated miles away at Hoover Dam, which holds Lake Mead. But less water in the reservoir has meant less low-cost hydropower for rural towns, forcing them to purchase more expensive power in energy markets.
Lincoln County is not alone. Power from Hoover Dam — and other Colorado River dams — is delivered to about five million people across the Southwest. Many of the customers buying this power are small rural electric nonprofit utilities, tribal nations and local government agencies.
“Water is obviously a super important issue and deserves to be talked about,” said Dave Luttrell, general manager of Lincoln County Power District No. 1. “But sometimes I feel, as probably the most hydropower-dependent utility in the Southwest, and a small one at that, kind of the lone wolf out here saying ‘We need to pay attention to hydropower production.’”
Residents in Lincoln County and other rural communities across the state might not get their water from the Colorado River. Yet many rural communities rely on power created by the massive dams — from Wyoming to California — that hold back Colorado River water.
Many rural towns get their power from customer-owned cooperatives. Unlike investor-owned private utilities, rural co-ops operate as nonprofits and help bring energy to remote areas.
Over the past two decades, Lake Mead has dropped to historic lows amid a prolonged Colorado River drought, worsened by a warming climate. The crisis is now so severe that states across the Southwest are facing difficult negotiations over painful water cuts needed to stabilize Lake Mead, Lake Powell and an interconnected system of reservoirs along the Colorado River.
Even with Lake Mead at 28 percent capacity, Hoover Dam can physically continue to produce some hydropower. If Lincoln County is “lucky” next year, Luttrell said, it will get 60 percent of its Hoover Dam power allocation. But if the reservoir continues falling toward “dead pool” — the point at which no water can pass the dam — that slice of the pie will grow even smaller.
“Hydropower is not coming back,” Luttrell said. “The days of Lincoln County Power getting 100 percent of its need from hydropower are in the rearview mirror, and they’re never coming back.”
The immediate future, he and others said, is going to be one of less low-cost hydropower. And small rural utilities, with fewer resources than large investor-owned utilities, are looking for ways to adapt. There are solutions, but they can be expensive. And in some cases, these rural communities and tribal nations are feeling the shortage doubly hard.
With less hydropower, utilities have had to purchase more expensive power on the open market, where prices can peak to extremely high levels on hot days. Simultaneously, their contracts with the federal government, which sells the hydropower, keep them on the hook for fixed fees used to operate and maintain dams — as well as fund fish recovery programs on the Colorado River.
“You pay for what you don’t get, and you go buy more expensive stuff to replace it,” Luttrell said.
These contracts are signed with an important, if little known, federal agency: the Western Area Power Administration. The Department of Energy agency, known as WAPA, helps funnel power from the Colorado River’s dams to rural utilities and tribal communities across the West.
“The drought in the West is one of our largest concerns,” WAPA spokesperson Lisa Meiman said. “Each one of our projects is working with their customers to identify the best path forward.”
In Nevada, WAPA sells power to the Colorado River Commission, which in turn distributes the water to rural co-ops and other buyers. WAPA also contracts with the Nellis Air Force Base, the Nevada National Security Site, and four tribal communities: the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, the Ely Shoshone Tribe, the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe and the Yomba Shoshone Tribe. But exactly where this hydropower comes from can vary, making the contracting very complicated.
Some have contracts to get their power from the Colorado River Storage Project, upstream of the Hoover Dam. The project includes Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Lake Powell, a reservoir that fell below a critical threshold this summer. Others get their power from Hoover Dam. And some buy electricity from power plants at Parker and Davis dams downstream.
The terms of the contracts vary depending on where power is purchased, but in general, WAPA operates as an at-cost organization, Meiman said. About 95 percent of its funds come from the revenues generated off of power and transmission sales. That means it charges customers for expenses including operations and maintenance, investments and environmental compliance.
The structure seems to work when the water is there, even in cases where there are small shortages. Yet unprecedented water shortages on the river have strained the system, especially for customers who have generally seen an increase in hydropower rates. And it raises major questions about the future, with grim water forecasts for Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Upstream of Hoover Dam, for instance, costs for the Glen Canyon Dam and other projects are split among water and power customers. Right now, about 75 percent of the costs are borne by power users. Irrigators, for the most part, are expected to pick up the rest of the tab. But a provision in federal law says that power revenues could cover costs “beyond the irrigators’ ability to pay.” As a result, Meiman said, power revenues pay for about 90 percent of the upstream infrastructure.
Fixed costs are only one part of the equation. Less hydropower generation has a cascade of consequences. Energy experts stress that hydropower brings reliability to the grid in the West, especially when demand peaks in the summer. Power revenues have additionally helped to pay for environmental programs, including two recovery programs aimed at restoring fish species, including the humpback chub, bonytail chub, pikeminnow and razorback sucker.
For utility managers like Mendis Cooper, these impacts are hardly theoretical. Cooper, who leads Overton Power District No. 5, said most rural electric co-ops are operating without the flexibility that a big power provider might have. That means higher hydropower costs — and the need for replacement power — often have a large impact on rates, which are then passed along to rural businesses and farmers who are already operating on tight margins.
“All of us that are rural utilities are all not-for-profit,” he said. “We don’t have margins. We don’t have margins from previous years that we can carry over to make up for these types of things.”
Hydropower, Cooper said, accounts for about one-quarter of the power used by the Overton Power District, which serves the Moapa Valley, the Moapa Band of Paiutes and Mesquite. To mitigate an increase in rates, the power district can defer capital projects, but only for so long.
“Our rates keep going up and up,” he said.
The future — and what happens next — comes down to water. Cooper, who also serves as president of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, said he is watching the negotiations and efforts to stabilize Lake Mead, which sits just outside of Overton.
“We’ve seen this coming,” Cooper said of the water shortages. “We’ve seen the lake levels drop over the last 20 years. But it’s still amazing that something that big can go down that fast.”
In addition to buying replacement power on the open market, some rural electric utilities are looking for long-term alternatives to fill the gaps created by the drought. Lincoln County, for instance, has been working closely with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) to help fund a multi-phase solar project, according to Luttrell, who runs the local utility.
“We feel like we’ve got to solve this problem ourselves,” Luttrell said.
Once built, the solar project could cover about half of the power district’s customer demand. Luttrell said Lincoln County is working with rural co-ops in Arizona to source some of its power from natural gas when neither hydropower nor solar is available. Similarly, the Overton Power District recently signed a contract to install a solar plant, hoping to offset the loss in hydropower.
Still, Cooper warns: “We cannot replace that role hydropower plays on the entire grid.”
The hydropower challenge “means that these utilities have to be creative,” said Carolyn Turner, executive director of the Nevada Rural Electric Association. Efforts to bring more power online, she noted, could be aided by the Inflation Reduction Act, which allows non-taxable entities, such as local governments, schools and nonprofit utilities, to take advantage of solar energy credits.
As more rural utilities grapple with this issue, a looming question remains — what role should the federal government play in replacing lost hydropower and preparing for a drier future? By law, the only power source WAPA markets is hydropower, Meiman said.
But, she added, the agency is working closely with the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water along the Colorado River, to find long-term solutions and to make the current operations more efficient. Already, WAPA has pushed for changes to when water is released at dams, as it is more beneficial for power customers if water is released at times of peak electricity demand.
Today, Lincoln County has a population of about 4,500 residents, and farming is a key part of its economy. Bevan Lister, an irrigator, a county commissioner, and the president of the Nevada Farm Bureau, has watched Colorado River water use over the past three decades.
For farms that rely on groundwater, the electricity that drives their pumping can make up about 15 to 20 percent of the budget. The power district, Lister added, has done a good job of managing costs in the past. But he said that irrigators are looking at more expensive electricity rates next year.
Farming in Nevada, he said, “has a lot of challenges, both climate wise and cost wise. So any time those costs are increased, it challenges the viability of [farming] businesses.”
Water on the Colorado River, Lister argued, “has to be managed in a different way” to keep the reservoirs stable, and he said hydropower remains an important part of the equation.
“Hydroelectric power is extremely valuable to the agricultural industry, both in Lincoln County and across the West,” Lister said. “Dependable and cost-efficient electrical systems provide for a tremendous amount of our agricultural production in the West.”
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
The “power of place:” For years, renewable developers have looked to the Great Basin and Mojave Desert as prime land to site energy projects. The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada docket list is increasingly filled with notices of new developments. Many of these would go on public land, managed by the federal government. Where these projects go matters a great deal. The sprawling projects can conflict with sensitive habitats, migration corridors, recreation areas, culturally significant land and competing uses, including grazing rights and mineral claims.
Last week, The Nature Conservancy released a regional report looking at renewable project siting, and what it would take to avoid the most sensitive landscapes and ecosystems. The takeaway: It can be done, but it will require planning. The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth took a look at the report in his newsletter earlier this month and what it might mean for the energy transition.
The federal government is launching a program to pay irrigators for conserving a portion of their Colorado River water. But will prices be enough of an incentive to move the needle? More from KUNC’s Alex Hager, who writes that “the funding represents a rare infusion of federal money for a climate change-fueled crisis that is plaguing the Southwest’s water supply.”
“We end up referring them out and sending them hundreds of miles out of their way just to get care that we should be able to provide here.” That’s a quote from Serrell Smokey, the chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California in a recent story published by Kaiser Health News. Reporters Julie Appleby and Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez look at the ways in which wildfires, made worse by climate change, are affecting health care where access is limited.
Just how many mines are needed for the energy transition? That’s a question that Jael Holzman of E&E News looks at in a piece this week. This is a must-read for understanding the potential impact of the energy transition in mining-friendly jurisdictions, including Nevada.
Where the Las Vegas pipeline stands: Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Colton Lochhead and photojournalist Ellen Schmidt produced an important story about the proposed Las Vegas pipeline now that the project has been shelved — and the relief it’s brought to eastern Nevada.
The AssociatedPress‘ Scott Sonner looks at the similaritiesbetween a case involving a rare toad in Dixie Valley and a landmark Endangered Species Actcase.
Register here. Click the link to read the release on the Colorado State University website (Anthony Lane):
This year’s CSU Spur Water in the West Symposium, to be held Nov. 2-3 in downtown Denver, will bring together policymakers, researchers, and experts from the business, nonprofit, and agriculture sectors to look globally for lessons and strategies with the potential to inform how Colorado and other western states respond to the region’s water challenges.
The event’s theme, “Global Water: Successes and Solutions,” underlies a program that includes panel discussions and keynote speeches aimed at starting conversations about how communities and the entire region can respond and adapt to the pressures created by a growing population within a changing environment.
“Water in the West, now in its fifth year, has always focused on creating opportunities for speakers and audience members to connect while exploring solutions from unexpected places and sectors,” said Jocelyn Hittle, the CSU System’s associate vice chancellor for CSU Spur and special projects. “This year, we are bringing speakers with wide-ranging expertise — from ag to business to investing — together from across the world to present solutions that might be useful here in the American West. We hope the CSU community and others from across the West will join us for a stellar speaker line-up, a solutions-oriented approach, and a chance to build new, and perhaps unexpected, connections.”
Speakers and panel discussions
Among the speakers at the 2022 Symposium is Jay Famiglietti, a water researcher who leads the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Panel discussions on cities, agriculture, and innovation opportunities will seek to inform western water discussions by drawing on the experiences of experts from government agencies, private industry, and municipalities as far away as Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa.
Two additional panel discussions will examine lessons and opportunities related to international water agreements. One will focus on the Columbia River Treaty, which the United States and Canada signed in 1961 and governs the construction and operation of dams on a river that begins in the mountains of British Columbia, flows south through eastern Washington, and then turns west, defining the border between Oregon and Washington on its way to the Pacific. The other will explore solutions involving the United States and Mexico, both of which rely on water from two rivers, the Colorado and Rio Grande, that have their headwaters in Colorado.
The Symposium switched to a virtual format in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID precautions. This year, attendees have the option of attending in-person sessions at the Seawell Ballroom or participating virtually. A combined reception at CSU Spur the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 2, will bring Symposium participants together with the ranchers, farmers, conservationists, land managers, scientists, and others attending Regenerate 2022, an annual conference focused on sharing knowledge and building a culture of resilience.
The event will take place just weeks before the Spur campus’s third building, Hydro, opens in January. In coming years, Hydro will house the Water in the West Symposium and a range of programs and initiatives focused on water research, conservation, and education. Among these will be Denver Water’s new water quality lab, which will serve to inform the public while providing capacity for more than 200,000 tests each year to monitor the quality of water before treatment and after it is prepared for distribution to customers across the metropolitan area.
Program details and registration information for the 2022 Water in the West Symposium are available at csuspur.org/witw/.
A newly created funding program is geared toward supporting initiatives that may help allow agricultural operations to adapt to reduced water supplies. The Colorado Ag Water Alliance effort will support the design and implementation of drought resilience and innovative water conservation projects with agricultural water users and water managers, the alliance says…
The alliance received more than $190,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, for the new funding program. Greg Peterson, the board’s executive director, said in an interview that additional funds came from groups such as the Nature Conservancy, the Colorado Master Irrigator program, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts. The funding is intended to support development and implementation of innovative solutions to address ongoing drought and water-security issues in the state, according to a recent news release from alliance.